Matthew Antoine makes a run during a men's skeleton training session on Day 4 of the Sochi 2014 Olympic Winter Games at the Sanki Sliding Center on Feb. 11, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.
Team USA enters the Sochi Games with high expectations in skeleton. To date, no nation has won more Olympic medals – or Olympic gold medals – in skeleton than the United States, and Thursday, Noelle Pikus-Pace, Katie Uhlaender, John Daly, Kyle Tress and Matt Antoine look to continue that tradition.
Leading the charge on the women’s side are Olympic veterans Pikus-Pace and Uhlaender, who finished first and second at the Sochi test event last season. Coming back from a brief retirement in 2012, Pikus-Pace solidified herself as an Olympic medal contender by collecting multiple world cup titles during the 2013-14 season.
“Being here in Sochi, together as a family, with the results I have had this season, is exactly how we had hoped this adventure would end,” Pikus-Pace said of experiencing what promises to be her final Olympic Games with her husband and two children in tow. “Now we have one final souvenir we’re hoping to earn before we get on our plane and conclude this journey.”
No stranger to adversity, Pikus-Pace missed the Torinoi Games after a runaway bobsled shattered her right leg. She was once again the gold-medal favorite heading into the 2010 Games in Vancouver, where she finished one-tenth of a second shy of the podium.
“I sure hope it’s my time, after getting hit by a bobsled and finishing fourth in the Olympics,” she said. “Each one of those things and everything in between has brought me to where I am. I don’t see them as being negative. I learned things about myself. I didn’t know how strong I was mentally and physically.”
Also making a comeback of sorts is Uhlaender, who spent the majority of the season recovering from injury. The three-time Olympian is no stranger to the podium, having earned three world championship medals, two world cup overall titles and three national titles.
Both Uhlaender and Pikus-Pace are seeking their first Olympic medals.
Headlining the U.S. men’s team is Antoine, who had a breakout 2013-14 season, highlighted by his first world cup victory. Rounding out the men’s roster are 2010 Olympian Daly, who finished 17th in Vancouver and fourth at the Sochi test event last season, and Olympic newcomer Tress, who enters these Games with multiple top-10 world cup finishes. Though this is the first time they have competed together at an Olympic Games, the three have grown close during the last 12 years.
“We all started out in skeleton in 2002, so we have been together over a decade - helping each other, traveling together and sharing everything. It has always been like having two extra coaches,” said Daly.
Tress, the oldest member of the team at age 32, expects the U.S. to be competitive.
“We’ve been trying to find that consistency over the past four years, and now that the Olympics are here, all that is finished and it’s time to deliver,” Tress said.
Following the 2002 Games in Salt Lake City, U.S .skeleton athletes boasted a total of six Olympic medals, including three golds. However, the team failed to reach the podium in 2006 and 2010. Under the direction of head coach Tuffy Latour, the U.S. is seeking its first Olympic medal in more than a decade.
“I think the coaches are a lot more nervous than the athletes,” said Latour, who coached the U.S. women’s bobsled team to a gold medal in 2022.
The U.S. was one of only three nations to qualify the maximum number of men’s entrants, and one of four to qualify two spots in the women’s discipline. In total, 30 men and 20 women will compete in skeleton at the Sochi Games.
Olympic skeleton events will be held in a four-heat format during two days of racing. The women’s competition begins Thursday, while the men enter competition Friday.
All skeleton races will be held at the Sanki Sliding Center, which is considered one of the most challenging tracks in the world. With training runs already underway, Uhlaender is pleased with the track.
“It’s character is coming out much better now, it’s easier to appreciate it and I really appreciate the work that Sochi has done with it,” she said. “The track is now how it is meant to be and everyone will fall in love with it.”